While I’ve met several fiction authors over the years, I don’t think I’d ever known one of the subjects of a non-fiction book until Darkling Deb’s sister Cecilia published Always Liza to Me, her memoir of growing up with a severely disabled sibling, the eldest in their family of six kids. You may remember we went along to the book’s launch a little while ago, and I’ve been meaning to tell you about it since I read it during the first days of convalescence after the laparoscopy, when I really wasn’t good for much else. In some ways it was less than ideal subject matter; here I am trying to get pregnant, reading the story of everything going horribly, horribly wrong. But of course, Liza’s profound mental and physical disabilities (Cecilia says Liza ‘probably’ has Cornelia de Lange Syndrome) aren’t the whole story. The family’s collective experience is also an extraordinary – though not remotely mawkish – testament to how and who we love.
Darkling Deb is the youngest in her clan, so I ripped through Cecilia’s book at such a gallop partly because I simply wanted to get to the bit about my friend. All the years before Deb’s born make for fascinating, compelling, distressing reading, and are particularly gripping for the unadorned frankness with which Cecilia writes. She so easily might have tried to soften some of the portraits, and some of the more brutal memories, but it’s one of the real strengths of the book that she resists what must, at times, have been a strong impulse. Her candour only made my reading more urgent. What was Deb’s experience like? How did she cope? How did it affect her, being the youngest, when the eldest came to stay? Did they protect her? Were they able to, being kids themselves? Of course, the answer is not really, no. Deb’s own memories (as presented by Cecilia, who does a good job of weaving together everyone’s individual point of view) of being left with an unpredictable and sometimes very violent Liza took my breath away. I just wanted to reach into the book and deliver my friend – a toddler at the time, unsupervised as the much older Liza swiped and hit and scratched – from harm. In fact, some of the scenes where Cecilia recalls other younger siblings copping it from Liza are really upsetting. At one point, Liza nearly scalps a new baby brother. That’s enough to give anyone pause, and I definitely blanched and thought to myself, “Oh my god, imagine if…”
One thing that really saddened and depressed me was the harsh impression made by their mother during these years. It’s clear – talking to Deb even before reading this book, and certainly in the book itself – that it’s their father the children adore. Meanwhile, poor Mrs. R is left alone to struggle day after grinding day with all these children (she went to the Church to ask about using birth control because of their special circumstances, and of course was denied. As appalled as I was and am by this kind of thing, disgusted, actually, without it, there might never have been our Deb, so I can’t say I’m sorry those ridiculous men said no) including one who demands more of her and more of the other children than I at least could bear. This is a woman who is judged pretty harshly by her kids, and my heart honestly breaks whenever I think of her, which has been quite often since reading Cecilia’s book. How exhausted she must have been. How hard she must have worked just to keep it all together. How thankless her life must have seemed during those long, lonely years. Whereas it’s Dad who gets the Saturday morning sleep in, and when his wife asks him at one stage to perform some small menial chore, he hurls his tea cup against the kitchen wall. I wrote to Deb about this scene of the book, saying I couldn’t believe her mum hadn’t already smashed the entire set. Somehow the father emerges from those years with the rosy, uncritical love of his children intact; not so their mother, whose best is never quite good enough. She’s the figure who stays with me most; the stoic, dignified, private and tireless Mrs R, a woman who loved her family enough to sacrifice the image of herself as the loving one.
It makes me want to weep even now.